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Religion: A Middleman to Well-Being

It seems as if a new study is released almost daily showing another benefit of religious belief.  As a Humanist, these articles used to detract from my positive emotion dimension of well-being (i.e., they pissed me off).  However, as a social scientist, I could not just fall victim to the confirmation bias and ignore the studies that might weaken my Humanist position by providing more reasons to adopt a religious world view.  With a change in attitude, these articles became an opportunity for understanding.  I began to understand that religion turns out to be like an unnecessary middleman hawking products that you can buy direct.  Instead of costing you extra money, it costs you a piece of your intellectual integrity—and in some cases, much more.  In other words, religion is a means to an end—a means with a heavy cost.  That end, I will argue, is well-being.

I want to be clear that most middlemen do add value—they wouldn't survive very long in an open market unless they did.  Religion adds value.  It is a category consisting of countless prepackaged beliefs that have some form of continuity and internal consistency (i.e., beliefs that are generally consistent with each other, not necessarily with the scientific method, observation, or even reality).  This packaged belief system is very attractive to many people, especially those who are much less tolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity than others (Hogg, Adelman, & Blagg, 2010), are more prone to magical thinking (Caldwell-Harris, Wilson, LoTempio, & Beit-Hallahmi, 2011), and/or are unaware of other philosophies that focus on prosocial values.  But like with most middlemen, with a little knowledge and a tad of effort, we can bypass them and get a better deal.  Positive Humanism is that better deal.

A Means to an End

When we say we want money, it is extremely unlikely that we want germ-covered paper with pictures of deceased notables on them.  We don't even want the things the money can buy—such as a new pair of shoes.  What we ultimately want is our lives to be better in some way.  Well-being theory (Seligman, 2012) and its five dimensions (positive emotion, engagement, relationships, achievement, and meaning and purpose or PERMA) is the one of the best ways we can define in a useful way (i.e., operationalize) what it means to live a better life.  The new pair of shoes might increase our positive emotion by buying them, showing them off, and receiving complements on them.  Perhaps we also believe that the new shoes will help increase our chances of finding a romantic partner (relationships).  Increasing these two dimensions lead to an overall increase in our well-being.  This is one of the key understandings in Positive Psychology—that our wants and desires can be reduced to aspects of well-being.

When a study names religion as a factor that increases well-being, "religion" is used as a generic term that packages many factors that lead to well-being.  A critical look at any of these factors reveals that each factor in itself is a means, not an end.  For example, it is well understood now that one of religion's greatest benefits is the sense of belonging (e.g., Seul, 1999), often realized by community church attendance.  This is part of the relationship dimension of well-being.  Of course, this sense of belonging can be met in other ways that have nothing to do with religion, such as joining your local Toastmasters club.  Yes, I am shill for Toastmasters International.

"Proof" That Religion is Just a Middleman

Religiosity and spirituality, in many cases (certainly not all) are contributing factors to well-being, although you will notice that neither is one of the five dimensions of well-being.  In psychology, "dimensions" of the construct such as well-being are not chosen ad hoc or selected based on a cute acronym (although PERMA is pretty cute).  There is a scientific process called factor analysis that is used to identify as few necessary dimensions as possible while eliminating the unnecessary ones.  The reason religion, spirituality, or "God" did not make the cut is because aspects of all these are subsumed under one or more of the five dimensions of PERMA.  In a way, this is scientific evidence that neither religiosity nor spirituality is a significant part of well-being.

Positive Humanism explores the many alternatives to religious belief that lead to well-being.  There is no need for "faith" (i.e., believing in something disproportionate to the evidence), no need to accept beliefs that contradict with our current scientific understanding, and there is no authority figure or authoritative texts to follow.  If your goal in life is well-being, than even Positive Humanism is just a means to an end—it's just the more direct route, and an awesome ride!

Action Items

If you were ever religious, and remember the benefits you experienced as a result of your religion, make a list of all those benefits and connect them to well-being through one of the five dimensions of well-being.  For example, you might write "the security of believing God is watching over me."  You might then connect this to positive emotion.  Now, think about how your secular world view can overcompensate through positive emotion.  You might not be able to find the same security, but security is only one way to positive emotion.  You might write "the realization that there is no God playing favorites and breaking the laws of nature at his whim, gives me a greater sense of control in life and confidence in the known laws of nature, which leads to greater predictability and ultimately better decisions."

Caldwell-Harris, C. L., Wilson, A. L., LoTempio, E., & Beit-Hallahmi, B. (2011). Exploring the atheist personality: well-being, awe, and magical thinking in atheists, Buddhists, and Christians. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 14(7), 659–672. doi:10.1080/13674676.2010.509847
Hogg, M. A., Adelman, J. R., & Blagg, R. D. (2010). Religion in the face of uncertainty: An uncertainty-identity theory account of religiousness. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(1), 72–83. doi:10.1177/1088868309349692
Seligman, M. E. P. (2012). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Simon and Schuster.
Seul, J. R. (1999). `Ours is the way of God’: Religion, identity, and intergroup conflict. Journal of Peace Research, 36(5), 553–569. doi:10.1177/0022343399036005004

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Positive humanism is an applied secular humanistic philosophy based on the scientific findings of positive psychology that focuses on personal, professional, and societal flourishing. As an applied philosophy its focus is on ideas that lead to increased well-being. As a secular humanistic philosophy, there are no appeals to the supernatural, the magical, or the mystical.

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